(Photo by Mel Evans, AP)
April is very important for the Rutgers women's basketball program right now.
The Scarlet Knights want to be competing for a national championship in April and they are looking to former East Oktibbeha player April Sykes to get them there.
In her preseason basketball press conference, Rutgers women's coach C. Vivan Stringer made no secret about what the goals were for her team.
"We want to win a national championship," Stringer said. "We say it. We profess it. It's the highest level so why wouldn't we. All things have to be right, but we're not trying to hide. We would like to do that.
"We recognize where we are. I am extremely happy with them as a group. It's the right blend, but we're going to win together or lose together."
The 10th-ranked Scarlet Knights are on the way to achieving good things this season and take a 12-2 overall record into today's game against Cincinnati. They have won three-straight after beating Syracuse 55-44 in the Big East opener Tuesday night.
Sykes, a senior guard, likes the versatility of Rutgers and doesn't see why it can't meet Stringer's expectations.
"It's been a while since the last championship appearance by Rutgers," Sykes said. "Everyone knows their role on this team and no one (is) questioning what they should be doing. As long as we don't lack focus as a team, we can make a huge run.
"We must concentrate on the defensive side. As long as we play defense, crash the boards a little harder, block out more and cut our turnovers down, we can go far."
Offensively, Sykes likes the inside-outside game of the Scarlet Knights with what she and Khadijah Rusdan can provide at guard, Monique Oliver in the post and when freshmen Betnijah Laney and Shake Richardson come into game.
"We don't miss a beat when we put freshmen out there," Sykes said. "They still make freshmen mistakes but that comes with the territory."
Sykes said the upperclassmen do everything they can to keep the freshmen progressing in the right direction.
Nikki Speed and Erica Wheeler have shown Sykes what being leaders are all about.
"Nikki Speed is a vocal leader and she is always doing the little things like taking charges, making the extra pass and even rebounding at the guard," Sykes said. "Erica Wheeler who can knock the jump shot down consistently."
Then there's Sykes who has already put together an impressive senior season.
Sykes leads Rutgers in scoring at 14.9 points per game and is the second-leading rebounder at 5.7 boards per game. She is shooting 43 percent from the field (87-of-202) and 34 percent from 3-point range (23-of-68).
"She is much more relaxed," Stringer said of Sykes. "Last year, we told her she would be our go-to player and she knew what (we) needed her to do."
During the off-season, Sykes joined the USA Pan American Games Team and the opportunity to participate with different players was helpful.
"Olympics is all about team," Sykes said.
Sykes' career with the Scarlet Knights didn't get off to a fast start, but she has been satisfied with the way things are going now.
It has become a positive situation for Sykes to see the freshmen coming in and learning the Rutgers system. She wants to make sure to improve as a leader and do what it takes to keep the success coming.
"I'm extremely happy because I knew I could do nothing but go up," Sykes said. "When you are looking for something in life, it's easy to be deceived. I'm looking toward the future and things that will help me after college as well as right now.
"I'm just helping my team win and that's the only thing that matters. It was a challenge and I stepped up to the challenge. I've learned, grown from it and it's been great."
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